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Look out, Infinity Ward! There's a new modern combat shooter in town: EALA and DICE's Medal of Honor...
When EA sent us over the announcement press release for Medal of Honor in December, it was filled with references to Tier 1 Operators - special operatives in the US military that will form the backbone of its modern combat inspired Medal of Honor revamp. Intrigued, we typed "Tier 1 Operators" into Google expecting at least a few references to them as some kind of spec-ops division, or perhaps even a small wiki page if we were lucky. There was literally nothing. We pointed out this absence in our news piece, only to be pretty hilariously told by one of our readers, "Really? You Googled a supposedly secret arm of the secret services and nothing came up? WOW, shocking."
Whoever that anonymous poster was, they were bang on the money. EA has informed us that of 2 million employees in the US military, 50,000 are considered special operatives. Of that 50,000, a mere 200 are Tier 1 Operatives, hand-picked from a recruitment process where only 5% of applicants are successful. In other words, it makes Top Gun look like a frequent flyers club. EA explained to us that it has been working closely with real Tier 1 Operators, both retired and currently serving, to bring more realism and authenticity to the game. Everything from the precise way a Tier 1 Operator would hold a gun (apparently that's different from the accepted FPS conventions), to how they stealthily blend themselves into civilian communities, has been taken into account and it shows.
EA is clearly pumping the lion's share of its 2010 resources into Medal of Honor, a game that takes the current conflict in Afghanistan and speaks fictionally about what might have gone on over there far beneath the radar of Western news broadcasts. This particular story follows the path of a Tier 1 squad called 'Scalpel', and our first look picked them up in an area of Afghanistan dubbed the "Shanhikot Valley". We're going to go ahead and assume that this is a reference to the Shah-i-Kot Valley, a genuine area of Afghanistan that was location to one of the largest battles in the war so far. Whatever the case, similar to the Shah-i-Kot Valley, Medal of Honor's destination was a maze of rugged, rocky terrain across mountaintops that appeared as cold and unforgiving as the Tier 1 Operators themselves.
The level we saw started unlike any FPS we've ever seen before: with a goat in our face. Truly, the goat had apparently wondered directly in front of our Tier 1 Operator's eye-view as he lay prone and camouflaged in the undergrowth, patiently biding his time for the ideal opportunity to make a hit on his target. Thankfully, the goat got up and departed as our squad-mates moved into position and performed the kind of surgically incisive kill that you'd expect of the US army's elite. From here, 'Scalpel' moved deeper and higher into the hills where it found an enemy artillery emplacement firing on US positions. Part of the Tier 1 Operators remit is that they're in place, behind enemy lines and dressed like Afghan civilians to ease the path of 'Sledgehammer' (a codeword EA is using to refer to the larger presence of US forces - US Army Rangers and Air Force pilots etc.). Put another way, taking out artillery emplacements is a Tier 1 Operator's bread and butter.
Our squad spread out across a verge that lay directly above the gun and insurgents that manned it. Each operator took up a specific position on the verge, where they waited until the perfect moment and then lit up the mountainside with hot lead in unison, skilfully decimating the enemy forces in a matter of seconds. From there it was merely a case of swiftly mopping up the stragglers and planting explosives on the artillery gun to cease its function. It was clear to us by now that this was going to be a heavily scripted FPS experience with a broad scope, but a rigidly defined narrative that insisted on leading players through set-pieces rather than providing them with various options of how they'd like to attack it.
The style is unquestionably Modern Warfare inspired, and this is certainly not to Medal of Honor's detriment. One thing that Infinity Ward's series has always valued above all else is immersion, which it has controlled by casting players as a cog in an altogether larger and more significant machine. Whether it's 'Soap', Captain Price, or Sergeant Foley giving the orders, Modern Warfare consistently positions the player as second in command at most, allowing the developers to have strict control over what happens next and precisely where by directing players via its NPCs. It's a style that's particularly difficult to master because, without superb presentation in the visuals, voice-over work, level design, and combat set-pieces, players will quickly see through the illusion that's cast and feel constrained rather than immersed.
To say that Medal of Honor is a Modern Warfare clone would be too easy and cynical. Yes, it's clearly taking leaves out of that particular book, but why wouldn't it? The demand for this kind of gameplay is clearly at its apex, so to ignore that would be plain stupid. EALA appears to be nailing down this kind of experience with a distinct level of expertise, so God speed to it as far as we're concerned. Never was this more the case during our first look than the section that followed-on after the artillery gun, where the Tier 1 Operators set up shop by a mountain road and waited for a convoy to come into sight. Looking down across the valley, a US 'big bird' could be clearly seen on a bombing run, hitting targets in the valley's basin and emblazoning the night sky in the process.
What was particularly striking was how well the game environment was being rendered at this point. The explosions looked and sounded miles away, and yet a believable part of the whole environment rather than a distant backdrop. As our squad 'lazed' the target convoy of trucks that were coming around the mountain, the bomber veered of its flight path and started to fire rockets at our position. The resulting firework display almost bought a tear to the eye (for all the white phosphor), and was an impressive demonstration of how well EALA is working with the modified Unreal Engine 3 that it's using for Medal of Honor. If this sort of pace and variation is consistent throughout the game's single-player experience, then we're in for one hell of a ride when it releases later this year.
Although we haven't seen any of DICE's work on the game's multiplayer component yet, there's no denying the fact that it's in expert hands. If DICE can bring anywhere near the sort of multiplayer experience that it provided in Bad Company 2 then, far from being tacked-on, it will be a shining example of its genre that's guaranteed to provide oodles of long-term appeal.
As our first look closed out, the Tier 1 Operators were climbing up towards a mountainside village. When insurgents came into sight, the operators again stealthily took up positions amongst rocky outcrops, making sure that they had the high ground. Once again, the game's scripting let the set-piece play out stealthily. The team leader ordered his Tier 1's to hold fire until the targets were right underneath them and then, in a sudden flurry of gunfire, it was all over. As the squad moved up through the village and into houses, the task became less clinical. Weeding insurgents out from hiding places within dwellings provided the enemy with an advantage, which led to our character being knocked semi-conscious by the butt of an enemy rifle. As we looked up at a blurry image of the attacker cocking his gun, it appeared to be all over. A bullet in the side of his head soon turned the tables though: "I just saved your ass," remarked a squad mate as he hauled us up.
Medal of Honor just went to the top of our very premature Christmas list. EA is doing so much more than merely jumping on the bandwagon with this modern combat revamp of the Medal of Honor IP. On the contrary, it appears to be putting together a superbly presented package with truckloads of atmosphere and expertly designed set-pieces that serve up a hearty plate of immersive FPS action.